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Film Review: A gift for the brother who already has it all -- A Game

The Game

Directed by David Fincher.

Written by John Brancato and Michael Ferris.

Starring Michael Douglas, Sean Penn, James Rebhorn, Deborah Kara Unger, Peter Donat, Carrol Baker, and Armin Mueller-Stahl.

By Vladimir Zelevinsky

Imagine if each and every Agatha Christie novel ended with the revelation that the butler did it. Each novel might be different from the other novels, more or less suspenseful, more or less interesting, but the ending would be the same. Sounds highly unlikely, doesn't it?

Well, yes, it does, but maybe not if you're a writer of Hollywood thrillers. They all end with the main character (also known as "good guy") trouncing the villains (also known as "bad guys"), and getting the attractive female (also known as "the girl"). The Game is a Hollywood thriller. There, now you know everything you need to know.

The bright, optimistic, so-cheerful-it-hurts conclusion is a particular disappointment in this case, especially because for a while it looks like The Game might be a winner, so it's sad that it gets so lost in the end.

The plot concerns an uptight investment banker, Nicholas Van Orton (Douglas), who gets from his brother a gift certificate to a company called "Consumer Recreation Services". This company, for a sizeable fee, puts its clients into a custom-made adventure - weird things start happening, strangers drop cryptic clues, and the plot thickens. After a long (and frequently tedious) set-up, The Game hits a high note and manages to sustain it for quite a while. It's fun to watch the protagonist drawn deeper and deeper into a twisting plot, where it's not even clear anymore what is the game and what is reality. This ambiguity makes the movie seem like it might actually be about something interesting and important. Then the ambiguity is resolved (after pretending several times that we finally know what's going on), and the movie crashes and burns, becoming as generic as its title.

Maybe the customary Hollywood desire to wrap things up neatly is to blame. The intriguing notion that Nicolas might just be paranoid and losing his mind is not developed in any way. The fact that he starts as a businessman, ruthless up to the point of being inhuman, is lost as well.

Director David Fincher (Seven) obviously went a long way from his first movie, the Filmed In Confus-o-Vision Alien 3, but still mistakes insufficient lighting for atmosphere. Douglas does a good but uninspired job; set design is gothic and impressive; and the score is tingling with suspense. But all in all, this works only to prod the viewers into reacting the way they're supposed to.

If this sounds like a good way to kill a couple of hours, go for it. If not, you can check out the collection of short stories, The Club of Queer Trades, by G.K.Chesterton, and read "The Adventure of Major Brown". It has the plot identical to The Game, but has more fun doing it.

With its stylish visuals and general creepiness, The Game might trick you, for a while, into thinking that you're watching something worthwhile, but the illusion won't last long. It might look like fromage, and it might smell like fromage, but if it tastes like Cheez Wiz, you know what it is.